Rateb just wants to hug his family, who live in Lisbon. Ghossoun left Saudi Arabia for Syria after seeing images of children killed by the regime. Nurse Alaa used to rescue civilians in Damascus, until he was badly wounded. Turkey hosts over 4 million refugees. Some still dream of Europe, which pays to leave them where they are. Turkey treats them as “guests”, but how long can someone live in another’s home?

Stranded in


Reporting by Catarina Santos, in Turkey.

Design and illustration by Rodrigo Machado.

The moped zigzags dangerously around cars, vans and buses as it goes up and down the streets of northern Istanbul, doing its best to get through the chaotic – always chaotic – traffic. It turns away from the gigantic Trump Towers and gradually enters an area marked by simpler buildings, disorderly streets, running children

“A little light” called Portugal

and water trickling from the sides of the road. Rateb halts and points to a side street. “See that house? We used to live there.”


He sets off again and gains speed to make it up a steeper hill, pushing his engine to the limit before the final curve. The garage door opens on the ground floor of a relatively new building. Inside is a whole other world, the Dabbah family refuge.

In the elevator Rateb explains that they moved recently. “We were in the other house for about 15 months and that is where our beautiful baby was born”. The rent was cheaper than where they are now, but the humidity in the walls made them look for a new solution. “I have asthma and my son has very sensitive skin. In the old house we had a lot of health problems because of this.”


A young woman with long honey colored curls opens the door. “My wife, Daniah.” The Sunday sunshine finds its way through the lace curtains on the window and comes to rest on a toy strewn corner of the floor. Little Imad has just woken from his nap and is excited by the cameras and microphones which have invaded his home. Rateb has to improvise a barricade in the middle of the room so that his son will let him sit down and tell us why he wants to go to Portugal.


Almost all of Rateb’s family works at the Mezze, a Syrian restaurant which opened just a few months ago in Lisbon. Imad is one year old and has only ever seen his grandmother, uncles and cousins on the screen of a computer, during their frequent video calls.

Rateb has been in Turkey for three years now. He was the first member of his family to leave Damascus, in 2012, when he turned 18. Had he remained in Syria he would have had to join the regime forces and fight for Bashar al-Assad.


His mother, two brothers, two sisters, two brothers-in-law and respective children left months later, when the family house was bombed and his father murdered. They fled to Egypt and, three years later, resettled in Portugal.

They knew nothing about the country which was going to host them, but they accepted the opportunity presented by the UN’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) because they believed it would be easier to reunite the whole family in Portugal. For two years they have been looking for a solution to bring Rateb, his wife and child, to Lisbon.


Since July 2015 until November of this year, around 25,700 people previously based in Turkey were resettled in European countries, under two European Union programs. Less than 50 Syrians came to Portugal under these circumstances (around 1,500 have been relocated in Portugal having come from Greece and Italy).

Refugees in Turkey

4.2 million

Syrians: 3,3 million

300 thousand need to be settled in Turkey

Turkish government estimates, UNHCR and European Commission numbers (until November 15th)

25.700 were settled in Europe

46 came to Portugal

The process is slow and only accessible to the most vulnerable cases. The UNHCR estimates that at least 300 thousand people, around 10% of the refugees currently in Turkey, are eligible to be resettled in another country. But demand vastly outstrips supply, and less than 1% of refugees in Turkey actually have their cases submitted for resettlement.


Rateb is waiting for his process to move along. In October he got his first call from the UNHCR to confirm if he was interested in the program and then was called up for an in-person interview, with Daniah, to present his case and be officially registered in the database. For the process to evolve further there still needs to be a second interview.


There are no guarantees that the request will be accepted or that Portugal will be his destination. There is nothing he can do other than wait for that precious call.

Resettlement is a “surgical tool”


Candidates may not apply to be resettled in another country, it is up to the UNHCR and the Turkish government to decide which, among the cases registered in the country, are eligible.


“You can say it is a surgical instrument”, only available to the more vulnerable, since “the number of vacancies is insufficient”, says Dmytro Dmytrenko, from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) office in Istanbul.


Those who are chosen cannot pick which country they want to go to. Thinking of Rateb’s case in particular, we ask specifically: What happens if somebody says they have their mother and all the rest of their family in Portugal? “That will, obviously, be taken into account”, Dmytrenko assures us.


Once a case has been selected the UNHCR presents a proposal to a country which is willing to take people in. This is followed by a “long and complex” process, which includes interviews with refugees, safety and eligibility checks, according to national legislation. If there is a green light, the IOM deals with preparing the refugee and with transportation.

“You can’t just buy a ticket and stick them on a plane”, Dmytrenko stresses. “We’re not transporting furniture”, he explains.


Difficulties in access to the program and delays are fertile ground for corruption. During our time in Turkey we met several refugees who are convinced that if they pay they might get their cases hurried along. “Unfortunately we have seen an increase in people claiming to represent the UN, UNHCR or the IOM to try and trick the refugees or extort money from them”, regrets the IOM official. “They say: ‘Are you Syrian? Portugal costs three thousand, Germany four thousand, Italy five thousand… You pay me and I’ll deal with it”.


The UN agencies repeatedly warn that their services are always free of charge. The UNHCR’s refugee support website even goes so far as to ask that people report cases of a UNHCR official involved in any kind of fraud”.

Alone amidst 15 million people

When he fled Syria, Rateb stayed in Jordan for about 18 months, until a friend convinced him to go to Istanbul, with promises of “lots of work and opportunities”. He left with a cousin and at one stage shared a tiny house with nine people, but his friend kept his promise and got him a job. He has been working for about three years, “11 hours a day”, at the same clothes shop.


“The first year and a half were really hard, because we had to learn the language, make contacts, learn a new trade”, he recalls.


He stops short of describing Istanbul as the land of marvels which he had been told about, but it was in this non-stop and gigantic city that he found what had slipped through his fingers back in Syria. In Damascus Rateb and Daniah moved in the same social circles, but their relationship was “just normal, or even less than normal”.

Daniah left Syria in 2014 because of family issues. The three months she spent in Istanbul changed their lives. “After she arrived things progressed very quickly and I found the love of my life. She was who I wanted, more than anything else… And I got her”, says Rateb, as he and his wife trade embarrassed smiles.


The proposal was long-distance, after Daniah returned to Syria. “I spoke to her family, we did everything by the book and then she returned here.” They married in April, 2015, and Imad was born a year ago.

Daniah is 23. Rateb is 24. They never missed their family circle as much as over the past year. All the advice they need is an over three thousand kilometers long distance phone call away, with Fatima, Rateb’s mother, who is the chief cook at Mezze. “I always spoke to my mother, but she’s not here, and speaking on the phone is not the same as having somebody close by”.


“It was the hardest period in my life”, Daniah admits. “Having a baby, not knowing anything… My mother has died, so I can’t even reach her on the phone. It was more than I could cope with.”


The over three million Syrians currently in Turkey have the right to temporary protection, which gives them access to basic services such as health, education and work. But reality is more complex than a theoretical listing of rights, and for most, such as the Dabbah family, life “is not easy”.

Everything is a stretch. “We have to work hard just to get by. It’s a new country, a foreign language, the traditions are different from ours, we can’t get used to it.”


Daniah spends her days at home with Imad. “She hasn’t been able to find work, because she doesn’t speak Turkish. She has some difficulty communicating with the people here. They’re not very open to foreigners”, says her husband.


The hilly terrain around the house doesn’t help, either. Daniah suffers from Blount disease, a deformation of her tibia which required five surgeries so that she could walk again. It is one of the reasons she wants to leave Turkey. “The disease she has in her legs requires a lot of medical attention, which we can’t get here. We need to go somewhere where this can be dealt with.”


They have a right to all the services available at public hospitals, but they say they are not afforded “the same care as regular citizens”. Especially because of the language, that great obstacle. “With health issues you have to be very clear to explain what is wrong, and that has been very difficult”, says Daniah.

Anything that falls outside the realm of state provided services also falls outside the scope of their income. “Once we had to get x-rays of her legs and we couldn’t wait for the state hospitals, because there is a waiting list. So we had to go to the private sector, and it was very expensive”, says Rateb.

“When I open my eyes and realize I am still here, I get depressed”

Their only income is two thousand Turkish Lira, around 425 Euros. Over half that goes on rent. “If you want a nice clean place for your family, it will cost you at least 1,500 Turkish Lira (around 320 Euros). This place, for example, I rented for 1,000 Lira (235 Euros)”.


Any extra costs require careful planning. “For example, winter is coming and we need to buy warmer clothes. We have to make a plan, save money, first I buy for my wife and for my son, only then for myself.”


They have grown weary of living each day at a time, with no prospects. “There is no way to save money. We work just to get by, to pay the rent, pay our bills and eat. And not even in a good way. Just to survive.” Rateb leans forward and strokes Imad’s head. “And this little one needs a lot of care as well.”


On one of the scales are the Dabbah’s heavy financial difficulties, isolation, lack of future prospects in Turkey. On the other, a shimmering image of Portugal, a motivation to get out of bed each day. “Every day, when I open my eyes and realize I am still here, I get depressed”, admits Daniah.

They know that in Portugal they would also be faced with many of the obstacles they currently face in Turkey – the language, an even more different culture, the uncertainty of finding work. But they also see advantages that are hard to ignore: family support and a possibility of a future.


“So long as the country respects me, treats me as a human being, provides my son with a good future and allows me to follow the dreams I was denied in my own country”, says Daniah, “that’s where I want to go.”


In this imaginary world which helps them face each day, Rateb sees himself working with his family and Daniah would like to go back to university – not to the politics course she began in Syria under pressure from her father, but to study psychology or theatre.


For now they get by, one day after another. With their life suspended, like all the other refugees we will meet in the following pages.

They thought of trying to get into Europe illegally. “I know people who did so, and I know some who would like to”, says Rateb. But the stories they heard made them give up the idea.


“The sea is a dangerous place, even when it is calm. My cousin had many problems, he almost drowned, then he got lost in the woods, he spent a long time with no food or water… Everybody knows these things.”


He thinks it is better to wait for the legal passages. And if the green light they are waiting for turns out to be red? Rateb is unhesitant. “I would never risk my son’s or wife’s life.”

Number of refugees who reached Europe from Turkey

March: EU-Turkey agreement

≤ 30 thousand

≥ 170 thousand

≥ 800 thousand





The Dabbah family difficulties are repeated all over Turkey, the country which receives more refugees than any other in the world. According to the figures sent to Renascença in November by the Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management, there are 4.2 million migrants and refugees in the country, 3.3 million of whom are Syrian.

Less than 8% are in camps which are concentrated in the Southeast of the country, closer to the border with Syria. Today, six years after the conflict began, the vast majority of those who fled live among the Turkish population, especially in urban areas. They cannot obtain refugee status, which in Turkey is only available to citizens who come from Europe, but they do enjoy temporary protection status.


228 thousand people in 21 refugee camps in the southeast


more than 3 million all over the country

Data: DGMM


Even from the top of the famous Galata Tower, in the heart of Istanbul, one can’t make out an end to the immense number of buildings which cover a land made of layers and layers of history, accumulated over the centuries.

With almost 15 million official inhabitants, this is the fifth largest city in the world, in terms of population. Here, where Europe and Asia meet, over 500 thousand Syrians are registered, although the real number is estimated to be closer to one million – more than in all of Jordan. This is the province with most refugees in the entire country.


For a tourist, wondering the streets, crossing bridges and strolling along the banks of the Bosphorus, visiting the Blue Mosque or the Hagia Sophia or getting lost amid the galleries of the Grand Bazar, this reality can easily go unnoticed. But stray off the beaten path, less than one kilometer, and if you look into the shop windows you might begin to notice the amount of signs with non-Turkish names.

In the Fatih district there are cafés, restaurants, book shops, butchers, grocer’s and candy stores with Arabic names. Businesses opened by Syrians which generally employ Syrians and are patronized by Syrians. This is one of the areas of Istanbul with a higher concentration of refugees.


It hasn’t exactly turned into a ghetto. It is rather a place in which the lives of Syrians and Turks, workers and residents, intertwine, sharing the same neighborhood, going to the same mosques, but speaking different languages and communicating little or not at all.


Beyond the shop windows there is a world of stories which take place far from less probing eyes. Between the Syrian dentist who manages a candy store and the former White Helmet nurse who spends his days grinding coffee; the journalist who faces off with Bashar al-Assad from a distance and the businessman who created an app to help guide other expatriate Syrians.

Places like Fatih are home to a community which can ease the pains of being a refugee, but the rent here is higher than in the suburbs. If Rateb Dabbah could afford a house here he would probably have less conservative neighbors than the Syrians he meets outside his house in the Kağıthane district. It’s 10 kilometers which can make all the difference in terms of integration.


Daniah Dabbah is all too familiar with this. “We’re from Damascus and most of the people here are from Aleppo. It’s the same country, the same people, but there are many differences between us.” She feels permanently judged by a more conservative community which does not accept, for example, that a Syrian woman should be out in the streets without a hijab.


Other refugee families are in an even more difficult situation than the Dabbah family and cannot survive without handouts.


Some refugees have been in Turkey for two, three or even five years. The vast majority try to get by as best they can. Many are attracted to the outskirts of the biggest city in Turkey for the same reasons which brought Rateb: the mirage of more job opportunities.


Turkish legislation currently allows refugees to work, but licenses are difficult to come by (they depend on factors such as the number of Turks employed in the provinces where they are registered) and a large amount continue to depend on the black market which pays what it wants, when it wants, if it wants.

It’s not difficult to come across stories of Syrian adolescents, or from other countries, who work illegally so that their families can survive. And even so, in many cases the income is barely enough to provide for a roof over their head and a shred of dignity.

It's the pride of the EU humanitarian support. It costs one billion euros. It benefits one million refugees.

There is some financial aid for these more vulnerable families. The most important is the Emergency Social Security Net (ESSN), better known amongst its holders as the “Kizilay”, the Turkish word for Red Crescent.


It began to be distributed towards the end of 2016 and was held by one million vulnerable refugees by October of this year. They receive around 25 Euros a month for each family member. The money is deposited in a bank account and can be used for whatever they consider most urgent – food, clothes, housing.


This is the pride of the European Union’s humanitarian support, and the most expensive project – one billion euros, funded out of the first installment of three billion Euros provided by the EU Facility for Refugees, created by the agreement between Europe and Turkey.


The project is implemented on the ground by the World Food Program, along with the Turkish Red Crescent, and the Turkish Ministry for Family and Social Policy.

Premature Adults

Noura and Mahmood Jabo are Syrian Kurds. They fled Aleppo and have been in Turkey for three years. First they went to Gaziantep, 60 kilometers from the border with Syria. Now they live in the ground floor of a humble house in northeastern Istanbul, in the Arnavutköy district, 30 kilometers from the center. They have four children: one seven year old boy, another 13 year old boy and two adolescent girls who are the family’s only breadwinners.


The family has benefited from the “Kizilay” since March. For the six of them there is little over 155 Euros, but it has helped them breathe a little easier since then.

Miriam is 16, Aya is 14. They work from 8h00 to 19h30 at a shoe factory. One makes 950 Turkish Lira a month (less than 210 Euros) and the other 700 Turkish Lira (less than 155 Euros). If they were boys, the father says, they could do more demanding work and earn more.


Mahmood, the father, has a frail body and a distressed look. He cowers on the sofa next to his wife and explains that he was also in the shoe business, in Aleppo, before he fell ill and was unable to continue. He can’t explain exactly what neurological disease he has. “It’s a problem with my brain.”


Only Murad, the seven year old, goes to school. His parents explain that they tried to enroll Abdul, who is 13, but he couldn’t go to fourth grade because he doesn’t speak Turkish, so he spends the days at home with his mother.


Lack of fluency in Turkish and the need to work to support their families are the reasons identified by the Turkish government for why around 300 thousand Syrian children don’t go to school. The Jabo family meets both criteria.

A written reply sent to Renascença by the General Directorate for Migration Management, which depends on the Turkish Home Office, reckons there are “approximately 900 thousand school-aged children in Turkey, two thirds of whom are currently in school”. It adds that it “encourages parents to send their children to school”.

Lack of fluency in Turkish and the need to work to support their families keep children out of school

One of the latest incentives for this is also financed by the European Union and paid for through the same “Kizilay” card. The Conditional Cash Transfer for Education (CCTE) is paid for with an initial grant of 34 million Euros, with another 50 million on the way.


It has been operational since June this year and is managed by UNICEF, based on a similar program run by the Turkish government for its own citizens.


Eligible families receive between 8 and 14 Euros every month, per child, depending on proven attendance rates. The CCTE currently reaches close to 170 thousand children. The goal is to reach 250 thousand.


When we visited the Jabos the family was waiting for their youngest child to be included in the UNICEF program. Officials from the World Food Program who accompanied Renascença assured us that they had consulted UNICEF and that the information was being processed. Aid should arrive soon.

Mahmood, Abdul and Noura. The seven year old boy, Murad, refused to have his picture taken. His mother thinks he was worried that his hair wasn’t looking right, and there was no convincing him. The two girls were working at the shoe factory when we visited the family.

The family watches the days go by, one after another. Waiting, like all Syrians we spoke to. “There is nothing better than one’s own country. Of course, if the situation improves, we’ll go back. That’s what we want”, Noura says.


As long as that is not possible, Turkey remains their temporary home and the matriarch has no ill words to say about the host community. “They feel for our situation. They have been very good to us”, she assures us.


Despite knowing only “a little” Turkish, where they live that is not a problem. “What helps us here is that there are many Kurds, and we are Kurdish, so we understand each other.”


The neighborhood where they live is made up of two to four story houses, some of which still bare brick, the walls barren, several beams still showing, pointing up to the sky, left over from the foundations.

Choosing isolation “to avoid problems”

A short ride away, in the WFP officials’ car, we reach another Kurdish family, also from Aleppo, which has been having a harder time integrating.


Othman Mohammed is 40 years old and refuses to comment on the relationship with the Turkish community. He says only that he “has no rights in Turkey”, and shakes his head when we ask him to be more specific. “We have nothing other than God and our work. What else can I say? Words fail me. If I start to lay bare my wounds, I swear I’ll cry.”


Othman works in a shoe factory. Two of his children, aged 14 and 16, are tailors in Gaziantep, where they live with an aunt. The family is composed of eight people and receives around 210 Euros from the “Kizilay” card.

Their 11 year old daughter, Hevana, doesn’t go to school either, and sometimes works with her father. “We keep to ourselves, we can’t get into trouble with anybody”, Othman explains. “There is no controlling Children, they get into fights. I try to avoid this”.


Othman is used to having problems for being Kurdish. He gives the example of his brother who lives in Denmark, having fled Syria in 2004, when “Bashar al-Assad launched a campaign against the Kurds” who had been politically involved in initiatives demanding more rights for their ethnic group.


He says he would not mind going to meet his brother and asks us, in jest, if we wouldn’t like to take his family to Europe with us when we return to Portugal.


His gravity returning, he brushes away the idea in a matter of seconds. “Let’s speak openly: If you want to go to Europe you need money. To get there you need three or four thousand dollars. Where am I going to get that kind of money?”


The head of the Mohammed family neither speaks Turkish nor is he interested in learning. His life is in a state of suspension, waiting for the first opportunity to return. He assures us he will do so, “as soon as they have the power back up in Syria”.

Simon Hacker is responsible for the World Food Program’s Istanbul office. He accompanies Renascença on the day’s visits and, when leaving Othman Mohammed’s house, sums up what he just saw. “Life is tough for a refugee, no matter where you live.”


Born in Canada, Simon worked in Syria during the first years of the conflict. He takes pride in the reach of the “Kizilay” and spares no compliments on the Turkish refugee support policies – not only over the past two years, since the EU support started pouring in, but “since the beginning of the crisis”.

Who gets the “Kizilay”?

Some months ago, Rateb Dabbah inquired about the “Kizilay” program, only to discover that he was not eligible. “They told me it was only for special cases, like people with three or more children, women on their own, very elderly people.”


Those who do not manage to get aid often become suspicious. Rateb is no exception. “I see a lot of people here who have more than four kids, but all of them work. They have money and they still get the ‘Kizilay’.” After knocking on a few doors he gave up. “I’m not the sort of person to constantly beg for help. I have my pride.”


Jane Lewis runs the Ankara office for the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), which manages the funds attributed to the “Kizilay”. She is aware of the criticism and does not deny that there might be people who “were included because of the demographic criteria, but who are not necessarily vulnerable”. In an interview with Renascença she assures us that these cases will eventually be detected “through house visits, which are demanded by the current legislation”.


According to ECHO’s calculations, there are also about 9% of vulnerable cases which don’t meet the demographic criteria. Jane Lewis says they are studying ways to include them.

A band aid and several “ifs”

The money deposited in the card allows a million families to keep their head a little higher above water, but it doesn’t remove them from their difficult situations. When it ends – and for now it is only guaranteed to keep functioning until January 2019 – the beneficiaries will be right back where they started. “Which, by definition, is a humanitarian initiative”, replies the director of ECHO in Ankara.


“We are a band aid for a much larger problem, which is the civil war in Syria, which seems endless”, Jane Lewis admits. ECHO is looking for a longer lasting solution along with the Turkish government, “so that, when the EU money dries up, or is no longer available, the program doesn’t fall apart”.


However, after 2018 all there is are question marks. The largest of all cannot be answered: “when and if people will return home”.


Jane Lewis has had this job since April 2016, but she has been working in the region since 2013. She followed the Syrian situation closely and doesn’t tire of saying that “it would be a great challenge, for any country, to absorb this amount of people”.





Istanbul is the only city in the world which sits upon two continents. The Bosphorus straight brings the two margins together, Europe on one side, Asia on the other. Crossing those waters, between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, one changes continent in 15 minutes.


Leaving the historical and cultural center behind, we dive 30 kilometers east and enter a more residential, suburban area, with more recent buildings, until we reach the Multi-sector Community Center of the Sultanbeyli region.

A plaque with the flags of Turkey and the European Union is placed at the entrance of the building, right beside a poster for Koran reading courses, on the floor above. The community center occupies the first floor. It is managed by the International Blue Crescent (IBC), in partnership with the International Organization for Migrants (OIM), funded by the European Union.

The outside suburban look gives way to a colored corridor, which leads to several rooms dedicated to legal, psycho-social and professional support, Turkish, English or Arabic lessons and other integration activities.

The teachers "do not always know how to help the different groups get along"

Gökhan Fidan’s favorite space is the pink and green. The walls are painted with Angry Birds and other cartoon characters, along with stars and butterflies. This is where the children’s art work goes.


For a conflict manager such as Gökhan, this is one of the few activities which yields immediate results. “While they draw, their state of mind improves”, he assures us.


This work with school-aged children is more urgent now than ever. Until last year the Syrian children went to temporary schools, but as of this year they began to attend regular Turkish schools. There is an advantage to promoting social inclusion, because they cease to be isolated, but the language barrier is still a huge problem.


“When the Syrian students don’t understand the language, they don’t understand the lessons, or the teachers, or the other Turkish students, and that generates conflict situations”. The teachers themselves “do not always know how to help the different groups get along” and are not prepared to teach Arabic speakers Turkish.

Mohanad is 13 years old and is still upset by the image of little Alan Kurdi, who died in 2015, when he was trying to reach Greece from Turkey

The community center at Sultanbeyli has been trying to organize activities at schools, such as workshops that promote socialization between Turkish students and those of other nationalities.


When they do so, Gökhan is left in no doubt as to the benefits. “At the end they admit that, after spending time getting to know each other, they can be friends. Before they hadn’t spent enough time together.”

Tell me where you live,

and I’ll tell you how to “harmonize”

Initiatives such as these have potential in places such as the high school in Fatih, in the heart of Istanbul. The refugees who live there are mostly from big urban centers, are better off and manage to place their children in school. But in Sultanbeyli things are quite different.


“Each neighborhood has its own dynamic”, says the conflict manager. Generally the ones who live further from the town center come from rural areas in Syria, are less well educated and from lower down the social ladder. Most of the young people need to work to help provide for their families and don’t go to school.

When it comes to the adults, “harmonization” (in Turkey the term “integration” is not used, as we shall see) with the Turkish community is even more complicated, says Emrah Genç, who has been coordinating the Sultanbeyli Multi-sector Community Center for the past year.


“They are difficult to reach, because this is also a different region, and the host community’s conditions are also worse”, he explains.

Most work illegally, "with no insurance, unregistered"

“Around 80%” of the Turks who live in this area, “earn less than two thousand Turkish Lira (around 440 Euros) a month”. The Syrians earn even less – “around 1,500 Turkish Lira (330 Euros)”.


Turkish legislation allows those benefiting from temporary protection status to work, so long as they apply for a license. But this “takes time” and “it is difficult for a Syrian to complete the process, because they don’t know what to do”, the coordinators says. Most work illegally, “with no insurance, unregistered”.


A Syrian living in the Fatih area will likely work for a Syrian. But not in Sultanbeyli. In an area where jobs are scarcer, they are also more vulnerable to exploitation. The employees can do the application themselves, “but they don’t want to, because then they would have to pay for insurance, and that is a lot of money for them”, Emrah Genç explains, regretfully.


In this scenario there is not much time left for activities on workdays, neither for the refugees nor for the host community. Therefore, most events take place on weekends. These range from concerts to intercultural lunches, or group discussions which allow them to share traditions – what separates them and what unites them.

Emrah says he manages to involve “between 600 and 700 refugees” every month in the different activities. “Since the beginning of the project, two years ago, we have reached 700 thousand Syrians.”


The easiest, however, is to attract them to a building where they have to go anyway to deal with bureaucracy or doctor’s appointments. This is what happens in another place, a few minutes away by car, in the busiest part of the district. The Community Center of the Sultanbeyli Refugees Association helps between 15 and 20 thousand people a month.


The six story building is home to shops run by refugees, medical services, legal support, professional training and an office of the General Directorate for Migration Management, where they need to go to deal with ID and travel authorization, for example.


The refugees call it “Syrian Municipality”. It is funded by NGOs such as the German WHH and GIZ organizations. The IBC has an office there which develops other projects and the Sultanbeyli mayor’s office contributes by paying for basic expenses such as electricity and water.

These support services created in Sultanbeyli are not unique. Several other organizations run “harmonization” projects all over Turkey. Many of them are funded by the EU’s Refugee Support Mechanism.


The IBC Community Center, for example, is one of several humanitarian aid projects developed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) all over the country, funded by Europe to the tune of eight million Euros. The goal is to guarantee basic care, support access to education and supply integrated services to about 165,550 refugees.


The IOM also has two more projects with the EU: one to support refugees and migrants rescued at sea; another in the non-humanitarian aid sector, aimed at increasing the capacity of the Turkish coast guard in the area of search and rescue operations.


All in all the EU had supported 58 projects in Turkey by the beginning of December and signed contracts worth 2.5 billion Euros, within the first installment of three billion Euros foreseen in the EU-Turkey agreement. The European strategy has never been to deliver funds directly to the Turkish government, but to support concrete projects run by international organizations or the country’s own civil society.


Jane Lewis, director of Ankara’European Union’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations’ service office, says that “several inspections are carried out during the duration of the contract”, to evaluate how the projects are being implemented.


Without funding, many of these initiatives would not exist. But the money, in and of itself, does not protect the projects from the many risks of failure that they face on the ground. Emrah and Gökhan have to jump through bureaucratic hoops every day if they want to make sure their goals get off the paper and have a real impact.


They have one advantage over others: both of them have made a habit of changing the natural course of things. One studied philosophy, the other biology and the desire to change the lives of others made them turn their own path around.


The refugees who are currently in Turkey face a whole range of difficulties: the language, effective access to education, health and the labor market, a need to resort to child labor and lack of information regarding rights and duties.

The main elements are connected and are based on what is evidently a bigger problem: the lack of prospects for a new life in Turkey.

“As ‘guests’ they cannot build a future”, says Metin Çorabatir, a Turkish specialist in issues related to refugees, president of the Asylum and Migration Research Center (IGAM, in Turkish) and former spokesman for the UNHCR in Turkey.

“If you open your house to a 'guest' he must accept whatever his host offers him”

The researcher stresses that the term “guest” originally had a “positive connotation”. Historically Turkey was, above all, a transit country and offered temporary asylum to whoever needed refuge, until they could be installed in a third country or return to their country of origin.


The problem is that “if you open your house to a ‘guest’ he must accept whatever his host offers him”, says Çorabatir. Since the situation of the more than four million people who currently find refuge in Turkey is far from temporary, there are important rights which are not guaranteed without the actual status of “refugee”.

Turkey signed the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1951, but established a geographic restriction, committing itself only to considering asylum requests made by Europeans. The refugee status is, therefore, not accessible to non-Europeans. Several changes were made to the Turkish law regarding international protection, but the geographic limitation remains.


The biggest reform was approved in Parliament in 2013 and stipulates that all Syrians registered in the country automatically benefit from temporary protection status. That is why the term “harmonization” – which is not the same as “integration” – began to be used. Changes to the law continue to be aimed merely at “making their life easier whilst they are in Turkey, and preparing them to live in another country”, explains Metin Çorabatir.

Syrians are “guests”. What about the rest?

All citizens of other nationalities – the remaining million people who are rarely mentioned when one speaks of refugees in Turkey, and who are mostly Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians – are left with no other option than to apply for international protection, and can remain in Turkey until transfer to another host country.


But the chances of that happening are increasingly scarce. For Afghans, for example, relocation has been practically off the table since 2013. Only the very vulnerable, such as children and the very ill, are referred. The UNHCR says it is unable to follow through with the processes, given the backlog of cases and the almost complete lack of vacancies opened up by the host countries.

A study published in February by the NGO Refugees International points a finger at serious discrepancies between the way Syrians and non-Syrians are treated, and blames the EU for not including all nationalities in its support programs, allowing citizens to be sent from Greece to Turkey without the same protections and guarantees.


Another study by Human Rights Watch, published in May, speaks of “arbitrary policies for asylum seekers” which keep non-Syrian children from having access to education.


Non-Syrians who register with the Turkish authorities are sent to small towns, where they find it more difficult to find work. The bigger urban centers, such as Istanbul, Izmir or Ankara are off limits.


Many of the ones who remain in these small satellite-cities face situations of poverty, and those who move to other cities, such as Istanbul, lose their legal status, are deprived of access to health services and cannot enroll their children in school. Most work illegally, facing potential imprisonment or deportation.

"I dont't have lofty ambitions. So long as I don't get wounded in a bombing, that's enough for me”

The Human Rights Watch study is based on interviews with families of 68 Afghan and Iranian minors. Hassan Reza Mirzaie was one of the interpreters who participated in these interviews.


Hassan studies Metallurgy and Materials Engineering in Turkey. Born in Afghanistan, he also works as a cultural mediator for international organizations.


He divides Afghan asylum seekers into three categories: those who register and try to survive in the satellite cities to which they are sent; those who try to get into Europe illegally; and a third group, “probably the most vulnerable”, which is afraid of registering and remains in the larger cities, like Istanbul, illegally.

Hassan Reza Mirzaie studies, has a fiancée and says he wouldn’t mind staying on. “I am the fourth category of Afghans in Turkey”, he says, laughing. “I don’t have lofty ambitions. If my job is secure and nobody attacks me, so long as I don’t get wounded in a bombing, that’s enough for me”.


And this is where his smile gives way to incredulity, when he reflects on what would lead the international community to consider Afghanistan a safe country. “Nowadays no city in Afghanistan is safe, not even Kabul”, he says.


Hassan recalls stories of people being persecuted “because of their ethnicity, religion or race”, or simply because they refused to collaborate with the Taliban. He mentions the frequent bombings – “it doesn’t matter if you’re at the mosque, the hospital, a military base or a wedding”.


Whenever there is a new incident in Kabul, he says, the first thing he does is look up “where it took place”, to check if it was near where his family lives. When we ask him more about his family he replies: “they are fine, they are lucky to be well, we can say they are still alive”.

The Turkish dilemma and risk of tensions

Author of several reports on the conditions of refugees in his country, Metin Çorabatir worked as a spokesman for the UNHCR in Turkey for 18 years, until retiring in 2013. He has followed the issue closely for decades and believes that, currently, “Turkey is faced with a dilemma”.

On one hand, he claims, “the country is being very generous” and “no country in the world” can deal easily with such a migratory flow. The money which has been spent by the state is controversial in the country and has given rise to many questions on the part of the opposition. According to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the country has already invested over 25 billion in accommodation since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.

On the other hand, the law is out of synch with reality, because neither of the other two legal solutions is going to solve the problem: neither a return to the country of origin is possible “for those who come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran”, nor will the relocation process have a significant impact, because “it is practically closed. There are very few vacancies in the Western countries”.


The solution, he claims, requires “understanding first of all what the term ‘integration’ really means, and changing the law”, starting with the lifting of the geographic restrictions for the attribution of refugee status, unless Turkey “wants the situation to become chaotic”.


There are two bigger risks on the horizon: the marginalization of refugees and an increase in tensions with the Turkish population.

In a written reply to questions posed by Renascença the Turkish Home Office’s Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM), says the country is committed to “keeping up activities for constructive ‘harmonization’” so that the “migrants become active participants in the country’s social and economic life”.


Asked about the possibility of non-Europeans being allowed to apply for refugee status in the future, the DGMM merely replies that “Syrians who benefit from temporary protection enjoy the same rights and public services as Turkish citizens”, adding that “there is a legal process for acquiring Turkish citizenship for those who wish to do so” and that “thousands of Syrians have already obtained Turkish citizenship”.


This is a path which has been opened mainly to the more qualified refugees. Over the past seven years around 12 thousand Syrians acquired Turkish citizenship, but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faced heavy criticism from society and the opposition when he announced that this process would be made available to more people.


The same happened when Erdoğan proposed to solve the housing problem for refugees through the public TOKI system, which provides affordable houses. “There was much criticism – not only from opposition figures, but also from within his own party”, says Metin Çorabatir. The idea didn’t go forward.

Growing resentment among the Turks

According to the co-author of a study about “Challenges and Opportunities of Refugee Integration in Turkey”, generally “there is still tolerance in Turkey”, but resentment has been growing.


“The public has been divided from the beginning”, partly depending on political loyalty, he says. “For opposition supporters, these were seen as Erdoğan’s refugees, and he was accused of having invited these people into Turkey”. The President’s supporters however, “may not have been happy, but they had to support it”.

As time goes by and “the social problems become more visible, even the supporters of Erdoğan’s party have begun to express their discontent”.

There is a tendency for the general perception of refugees to fall into the usual demagogy of taking jobs from the local population – even if most of the refugees are doing work that the nationals would not accept; even though statistics show that Syrian refugees have opened over eight thousand companies in Turkey, creating around 100 thousand jobs.

"These were seen as Erdoğan's refugees, and he was accused of having invited these people into Turkey”

Does authoritarianism affect the refugees?

Historically Turkey has been reluctant to allow international institutions to operate in the country and tries to control all funds donated by foreigners. The intense flow of migrants over the past few years has forced a more open attitude.


The EU-Turkey agreement, signed in March 2016, also helped produce changes, because the European strategy focuses on funding projects and organizations directly. But there are still plenty of obstacles.


“One area which has presented a big challenge is the issue of registering NGOs, which we have been discussing [with the Turkish authorities] for so long”, says Jane Lewis, with the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO).


She assures us that since the implementation of EU aid began to be drawn up, in 2015, cooperation with the governmental organizations “has been excellent”. But there are situations which ECHO cannot solve, such as the Mercy Corps humanitarian organization, which was implementing two EU funded projects, but lost its authorization to operate in Turkey.

In these situations “if a partner doesn’t manage to renew its registration and decides to leave the country”, Jane Lewis explains, “we terminate their contract, recover the funds and attribute them to another program in Turkey”.


The Turkish Government justifies most of these decisions with allegations that the institutions have been aiding Kurdish rebels or have links to the Fethullah Gülen movement (a religious leader self-exiled in the USA who stands accused by Ankara of having orchestrated an attempted coup in July 2016).


Generally, however, the specialist Metin Çorabatir believes that “the more restrictive and authoritarian tendencies of the Government in recent years, have not had a direct impact on the refugees”. He recalls that “even under governments which were considered more liberal, Turkey was always very firm about maintaining the geographic restriction”.

In a study published in September 2016 the specialist in migration concludes that there is a lack of coordination between the projects on the ground, which sometimes results in a duplication of services in certain communities and an absence of aid in others.


“Neither the government, nor international organizations, nor NGOs or researchers can see the whole picture. Because official statistics are difficult to come by. It’s a patchwork”.


What harms the refugees more, he says, is the lack of coordination on the ground and delays in finding the right solutions. Çorabatir stresses that the UN agencies “are so close to the government that they are reluctant to criticize it”, and have been unable to convince it to “change mentality and the whole perception of the situation”.


Renascença tried repeatedly to contact the UNHCR office in Ankara to clarify this and other questions, but received no answer so far.

EU-Turkey agreement. Forced success?

Ever since the EU-Turkey agreement hit the ground, both signatories frequently highlight the effect it has had on reducing deaths in the Aegean Sea and taking down the trafficking networks which operated in the region.


The agreement stipulates the return to Turkey of all migrants who reach Greece, as of March 2016, and who are not entitled to asylum in that country. It also established a “one for one” mechanism – for every deported Syrian, another Syrian living in Turkey could be resettled in a European country. The EU committed itself to take in 72 thousand Syrians under these circumstances.


Until November 10th 2017, a total of 11,354 Syrians had been resettled in Europe under the “one for one” scheme and 1,969 migrants returned to Turkey from Greece. The European Commission reports repeatedly highlight that the rhythm of returns “is very slow”, and lay the blame on the lack of speed of Greek services.

What happens to the migrants who are returned to Turkey? According to the Turkish Directorate General for Migration Management “the returned Syrians are awarded temporary protection”, just like the others who are in the country, and “non-Syrians are given the chance to apply for international protection”.


Those who do not obtain this status are placed “in removal centers until they can be sent back to their home countries or to another safe country”.


When it was signed, the statement was met by a series of criticisms from humanitarian associations which worked with refugees, they were especially concerned with the idea that Turkey was a “safe third country” to which migrants could be sent.


In an initial phase of implementation of the agreement, the UNHCR itself complained that it was not being given due access to the removal centers where the migrants listed for deportation were held. “Gradually these problems were solved”, guarantees Metin Çorabatir, who has studied the issue in depth.

The specialist says that he never agreed with the warnings of danger of immediate deportation to countries of origin, “because Turkey respects the principle of non-refoulment”, enshrined in international law, which forbids repatriation of somebody to a country in which they might be subject to persecution or torture.


But the situation is different if you include the non-Syrian refugees, who do not benefit from temporary protection and can be deported more easily.


When it comes to these other nationalities, Çorabatir has less praise for the agreement. “Of course the EU had to open its borders and take in more people”, he says, because many “are blocked in Turkey, and cannot benefit from all their rights”.


“There are Afghans and people of other nationalities who have been living in Turkey for 10, 11, 12 years, with no status, no rights. From that point of view the agreement, through these two installments of three billion Euros, has tried to provide solutions to some of these problems, but it is not enough”, he considers.


We ask Jane Lewis about other nationalities and the official in charge of the EU’s humanitarian aid branch in Ankara recognizes that “in Turkey and in other parts of the region, non-Syrians do not get the sort of attention that the Syrians do”.

What comes after “panic”?

“Of course the EU had to open it's borders and take in more people.” There are migrants “who have been living in Turkey for 10, 11, 12 years, with no status, no rights.”

She is certain, however, that “in a global sense, on the humanitarian side”, the EU managed to “negotiate with the government” so as not to discriminate based on nationality. “All the humanitarian programs we fund are available to everybody.”

The Bosphorus straight separates Istanbul. Half in Europe, half in Asia. The body of water does not shrink or widen according to relations between the EU and Turkey, but this is a complex story, comprised of constant advances and retreats. And based, quite often, on a game of provocative public statements and much more diplomatic backstage meetings.


Over the past few years it has become difficult to predict where things are heading. Panic is not a friend of wise decisions, though. And Metin Çorabatir sees the agreement between the EU and Turkey as the result of a moment of collective panic. In 2016 “both Europe and Erdoğan were in a state of panic. As were the refugees. It was a chaotic situation”.


Regardless of the ideas on how the agreement came to be, and its weaknesses, shutting it down briskly would have a negative impact on the lives of the several million refugees in Turkey.


Now, he says, “it is time for the politicians on both sides to sit down, go back to discussions and reevaluate” – with less of a focus on the emergency and more on the development of sustainable and balanced policies. In technical terms, this seems to be the case, away from the limelight, in the discussions on the conditions for the transfer of the second three billion euro installment foreseen by the agreement.


The big question is if the current political climate will allow this “new way of thinking” from both sides. Relations between the EU and Turkey have been better than they are at present.


One key factor agreed upon in 2016 was the relaunching of talks for Turkey to one day become a member state. But increasingly authoritarian signs on the part of the Turkish government (namely persecutions of journalists and academics) let to a wave of criticism from Europe.


In September, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, used his state of the union address to say that Turkey was taking “giant steps in the opposite direction of the EU”.


In April 2018, the schedule for the next progress report on Turkey’s EU membership bid, the European Union will have to recommend if the negotiations should stay open or be frozen.


Whatever transpires until then will determine this report, and the report will determine the future of the EU-Turkey statement on refugees. The future of the agreement will determine the life of four million people who survive in Turkey while waiting to continue their life where they left off.


Meanwhile, as the dice continue to roll, Rateb and Danieh continue to wait by the phone, hoping it might ring, allowing them to pack their bags. “We dream about this every day: When are we going to Portugal?”

report funded by the

migration media award


as a follow up to the previous work

“Stuck in Europe’s backyard”

about the refugees in Greece




Catarina Santos


Design and ilustration

Rodrigo Machado



Pedro Rios


Arabic-Portuguese translation

Ghalia Taki


Portuguese-English translation

Filipe d’Avillez


Production assistant in Turkey

Salwa Amor


File footage




Ben Howells, Kai Engel, Nctrnm


© Renascença 2017



300 mil necessitam

de reinstalação na Turquia